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A Modern Tragedy of the Non-Commons: Agro-Industrial Change and Equity in Brazil's Babassu Palm Zone

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Type: Thesis or Dissertation
Author: May, Peter H.
Date: 1986
URI: https://hdl.handle.net/10535/5454
Sector: Agriculture
Region: South America
Subject(s): tragedy of the commons
agrarian reform
Abstract: "Agrarian change and industrial innovation jointly affect the economic role of successional babassu palm forests that cover a large part of Maranhao, a state in Northeast Brazil. Over three hundred thousand landless peasant households derive nearly one-third of their cash incomes from the palm's oil-rich kernels, raw material for a regional vegetable oil industry; virtually all parts of the palm are useful to the subsistence economy for food, fuel, fiber, and shelter. The inquiry concentrates on social equity effects of property rights alterations, studied during 15 months of field research in Maranhao. Land use (chiefly pasture) conversion and technical change in both agriculture and babassu industries have redefined property rights. Rural employment contraction is the primary impact. Initial rights over palms and land effect the ultimate distribution of rewards from innovation. A tragedy of the non-commons arises where a powerless peasantry is unable to secure compensation for external costs caused by resource privatization. Delimitation of access to palms and land increases pressure on remaining resources traditionally managed in common, hastening their degradation. The study compared babassu's importance to rural producers differentiated by enterprise scale and social organization between two agro-ecological subregions. Palm exploitation rates vary considerably between the areas studied. This suggests that industrial development prospects and associated employment impacts are geographically distinct. If agro-pastoral development is combined with industrial innovation in babassu fruit processing in areas where peasants already exploit most palms, employment will be severely curtailed. However, where babassu exploitation rates and agro-pastoral development potential are low, industrial innovation may generate new employment. Technologies which supplant manual kernel extraction and subsistence uses with plantation agro-industry will invariably be accompanied by costly distributional consequences. To compensate those displaced means altering development policy to partition rewards so that peasant producers become beneficiaries rather than victims of technical progress. Policy and organizational strategies are suggested to ensure that benefits of industrial innovation are equitably distributed."

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